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What We're Reading.

Here’s what’s under our reading lamps in 2021.

Allison Artnak

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Conversations about biases, racism and how they infect nearly every aspect of life.

Presence by Amy Cuddy

How to bring your boldest, most authentic self to challenging situations.

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

A memoir about growing up as the daughter of Steve Jobs.

Norine Cannon

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

He’s a great storyteller and his reflections on his presidency and his life confirm what I’ve always thought—he’s a good man.

Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld

A compilation of his favorite material over his long career. I also admire his dedication to his craft, choosing to return to stand up vs. retiring on a beach (on his own island, probably).

Mary Cohen

The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge

Such a hopeful book. It’s only recently that neuroscientists have confirmed the plasticity of the brain. Reminiscent of the late Oliver Sacks, Doidge presents the latest research and case studies to bolster research findings. As he says, “the true marvel is … the way … the brain has evolved, with sophisticated and neuroplastic abilities and a mind that can direct its own unique restorative process of growth.

The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past by Meave Leakey

Yes. Meave is part of “that” Leakey family. The daughter-in-law of Louis and Mary Leakey and part of three generations of paleoanthropological royalty, she tells her story along with her youngest daughter, Samira. Her discoveries have changed how we think about our origins. Instead of straight-line, ape-to-human progression, her work suggests human species living simultaneously.

What It’s Like to be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing —What Birds Are Doing, and Why by David Allen Sibley

During the early days of the pandemic, so many commentators marveled at their ability to hear the birds singing. It was finally quiet enough to hear birdsong. Birdsong. Is there anything more beautiful or hopeful? This encyclopedia of bird behavior contains a whopping 330 illustrations, many of them life size. Browsing through this volume, it is exciting to learn as much as possible about the creatures that we share this planet with—creatures we can finally hear. 

Rick Cole

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

Modern man has forgotten how to breath properly, says James Nestor. I had no idea that breathing with the proper tempo, depth and even orifice has a such powerful impact on health, emotional wellbeing and even disease vectors. Who knew breathing would be such a big deal in 2020?

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade

No matter how many Lululemons and Whole Foods are in your neighborhood, you are only a short drive away from a much harsher America. A successful Wall Street banker, Arnade took long walks to clear his mind. On one walk he stumbled into a surprising community⏤poor, drug addicted, hopeless, dispossessed and forgotten New Yorkers living where Manhattan meets the Bronx. Over time he befriended and then photographed the residents of Hunts Point in a remarkably respectful manner. After discovering “back row America” is everywhere, Arnade left his job on Wall Street to introduce them to us. This book touched me deeply.   

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief by Jordan B. Petersen

Imagine Moses, Fredrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Joseph Campbell, Malcolm Gladwell and Dr. Laura coming together to help us understand how our universe, biology, psychology, history and more create a framework for the ways we see and believe “reality.” Fascinating!

Amy Crowell

Empathy: Why It Matters, And How to Get It by Roman Krznaric

This book inspired the A Mile in My Shoes traveling museum, a collection of curated  personal stories in the form of short podcasts where the listener also walks around in the author’s shoes. 

Standoff: Race, Policing and a Deadly Assault that Gripped a Nation by Jamie Thompson 

Jamie was my college roommate. Its timeliness is apparent. Included on a short list of books recommended to read about this issue. Plus, I always love giving her a plug.

Also, The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington (see below). The latest by another contemporary of mine at Furman University. I enjoyed his first novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Homeland Elegies: A Novel by Ayad Akhtar

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic by Eric Eyre.

Eric Eyre and Ayad Akhtar were on a list of 2020 books recommended by the New York Times Book Review and given to me at Christmas. Hope to make it through before next Christmas.

Michael Garcia

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington

This is the second novel from an old college buddy who everyone knew would always write amazing novels. As predicted, it’s really good.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Inspiring and disturbing, this alt-history page-turner will keep you thinking.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

When you just want to read something fun.

Glen Gonzalez

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Because I’m craving a classic.

How to Read the Constitution and Why by Kim Wehle

Because it feels necessary.

A Village Life by Louise Gluck

Because this is a score for American poets. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 27 years.

Pity the Reader by Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell 

Because Vonnegut has a distinct and quirky literary voice and I’m curious to hear his perspective on the craft.

Don Sanford

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

His second novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It is a fascinating glimpse into a dark time in American history seen through the eyes of a young black man in a segregated reform school in the South just one generation removed.

The Stand by Stephen King

I have always been a fan of King and, so far, I think this might be his finest work. Also, while the book was written decades ago, it is so relevant to what we are seeing in the world as the subject of the novel is a global pandemic. Wonderful character development and a real pager tuner. I can’t put it down.

Julia Wolf

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.

The book is about how choices made without thinking aren’t actually as simple as they may seem. 

America Was Hard to Find: A Novel by Kathleen Alcott. 

The story, beginning in the late fifties, of a brief love affair and the child who resulted.   

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. 

The book traces the known history of our “most feared ailment” from its earliest appearances over five thousand years ago to the present, and the war that is still being waged.

Trey Wood

A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the 20th Century by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Among Buckley’s many talents was an ability to see promise in most people regardless of their politics. This collection of that most challenging of the written arts – the eulogy – demonstrates both Buckley’s talent and his gift for seeing the best in people. Here, he shares final thoughts concerning 52 souls, including figures some readers might be surprised to see this famous political conservative comment upon in such fashion, such as John Lennon, Jerry Garcia and John Kenneth Galbraith. 

Let’s Connect

If you’ve read one of these or have a great suggestion of your own, we’d love to hear from you. 

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A Quick Trip Through Employee Experience

Thinking in terms of the employee experience can help you improve communications.

Recently, a longtime client asked me, “What is employee experience and how does it make a difference when it comes to communications?” 

After we hung up, I reached out to one of my fellow partners here at Smith, Scott Walters, to explore ways we might summarize and capture that conversation. “A Quick Trip Through Employee Experience” is the result.

At the outset, we wanted the document itself to be an experience for both the audience and the creators alike. So, we took the opportunity to experiment with the design and format. Allow me to geek out a little …

Much of the graphic design work we do for our clients is based on grids. An underlying grid helps ensure a familiar composition across the various elements of a campaign, and they make it easy to position and size content. But, grids also result in a lot of sameness within a single visual identity system and across the many visual identity systems we work within. Bottom line (pun intended) … grids are great, but we needed a break!

“A Quick Trip Through Employee Experience” showcases a distinct painterly style uncommon in the visual identity systems we typically worth within. In an increasingly digital world, we thought something with a freer, more “hands-on” feel would help reinforce the human element of the story.  

This document is a PDF and it is best viewed through the Acrobat desktop application. We hope you’ll download it and enjoy the ride.

View Downloadable Map

Let’s Connect

Are you wondering how thinking in terms of the employee experience can make a difference in your communications? Are you looking for some unique graphic design? We’d love to hear from you. 

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So, What's Work Like Now?

Impactful communication hinges on knowing what your employees really need.

I once asked a graphic designer how to draw people. 

She suggested I work on my personality.

This little joke highlights the false beliefs of two characters. What I wanted help with was quite different than what the designer thought I needed help with. 

This same kind of disconnect can happen when you’re writing content and communications for your employees. You make assumptions about what you think the audience needs, and you create the content based on those assumptions. But, if your organization had to shift suddenly this year in response to the pandemic and lockdowns, your previous assumptions about your employees might need a reboot.

To create good content and communications, you should try to see the world as the audience sees it. It can help to know their goals, their feelings and what they’re experiencing at that moment. Psychologists refer to this as having a theory of mind.

To create good content and communications, you should try to see the world as the audience sees it. It can help to know their goals, their feelings and what they’re experiencing at that moment.

Journey mapping is one technique for getting inside your audience’s head and understanding their needs based on what work is like for them now.

Understand Your Audience’s Journey

We aren’t born knowing others have desires, beliefs and knowledge different from our own. We learn this as children and it deteriorates with age. When it comes to writing content and communications, we have the additional challenge of forming a theory of mind for many different people who might be arriving at a similar point in a journey from different paths and with different objectives.

A journey map is a visualization of the process that an employee goes through to accomplish a goal. It’s used for understanding and addressing the employee’s needs and pain points.

A journey map might start as a simple checklist. But, depending on the process, a list might not be enough. You might need to augment your list with additional detail, including any people, tools or other information the employee might need or come in contact with along their way to achieving their goal.  

The resulting map should be thought of as a living document, a snapshot you review occasionally to hunt down pain points and make improvements. Having a journey mapped can also help you assess the impact of proposed process changes. 

Here’s a journey map we created at Smith to help us manage one of our larger partnerships. (We can’t share the name of this client on our website, so we’ve scrubbed out some of the detail.) This map started out as a simple to-do list 10 years ago. But, as the number of projects, processes and people involved grew, we needed a 30,000-foot view so we could delegate tasks, develop training and find efficiencies. A map like this might help you improve a variety of processes, such as performance management, annual enrollment, onboarding and more.

Let’s Connect

Do you use journey maps? Share your story with us. If you’d like some help creating employee content and communications, we’d love to hear from you.

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Physical, Financial and ...

Communicating a holistic approach to well-being

Even before COVID-19, employees were struggling to navigate our “always-on” work-life world. Lockdowns and worksite closings have only made it worse. If burnout, stress, and illnesses are taking a toll on your organization, supporting your employees’ total well-being can have a real impact on their productivity, engagement, and loyalty. 

How organizations communicate their commitment to employee well-being is varied and unique — as it should be. If you’re trying to get your arms around the concept of total or holistic well-being, here are some questions you might want to consider.

What is “well-being”?

There’s not a generally agreed upon or scientific answer to this question. But here’s a simple definition you can start with: Well-being is a positive and meaningful perception that one’s life is going well. Easy enough!

What is a “holistic model for well-being” when it comes to employee benefits and the workplace?

At Smith, we think it means designing an overall employee experience that helps employees manage the wide range of issues and concerns they face and ultimately feel more protected, secure, and cared for. Sound unwieldy?

What are the components of holistic well-being?

Because there are so many issues and concerns that can affect one’s well-being, it can be helpful to categorize them. Following are a gathering of various components of well-being, their basic definitions, and examples of employee benefits and programs within each. In our experience, it is unusual for any single employer to use all of these various components. It’s more common for an organization to consolidate these various categories into a smaller, memorable set of three, four, or five. 

Many factors lead to well-being in the workplace.
ComponentDefinitionBenefit Examples
CommunityConnectedness to and participation in one’s
community; good citizenship; availability of
support and strong, functioning social networks
Corporate matching gifts
Support for volunteerism
Time off for voting
Political action committees
Environmental  Good stewardship of natural resources;
respect for surroundings; making connections
between the physical environment
and personal health
Recycling programs
Healthy working environments
Ergonomic work stations
Waste reduction campaigns
FamilyHaving strong and positive marital,
parental, sibling, intergenerational,
and other familial ties
Paid parental leave
Family and medical leave
Adoption/surrogacy reimbursement
Reproductive assistance benefits
Pre-natal and parental coaching
Employee assistance program
Pet insurance
Back-up care
Dependent care flexible spending account
FinancialA sense of security that comes from
feeling one has enough money
to meet their personal and family needs
Retirement programs
Health savings account
Flexible spending accounts
Life and AD&D insurance
Disability insurance
Business travel accident insurance
Financial counseling/planning
Paid leave benefits
Voluntary insurance programs (critical illness, hospital indemnity, cancer)
Identity theft protection/insurance
Subsidized care options
Prepaid legal plans
Intellectual Cherishing mental growth and stimulation;
having an open mind about new ideas;
seeking ways to expand knowledge and skills;
engaging in creative mental activities;
exploring one’s own potential;
sharing one’s abilities within the community
Job rotation
Temporary assignments
Student loan benefit
MentalHaving thoughts, moods, and behaviors
that allow a person to realize their
own potential, cope with the normal
stresses of life, work productively, and
make a contribution to the community 
Employee assistance program 
Counseling/therapy benefits
Vacation, personal days, paid time off
Flexible work arrangements
Occupational  Making use of one’s skills and talents
to gain purpose, happiness, and
enrichment; ability to achieve a
healthy work-life balance,
manage workplace stress, and
build relationships with bosses
and coworkers; integrating a
commitment to one’s occupation
into a satisfying and rewarding lifestyle
Student loan benefit
Service awards
Rewards and recognition
Career support/development
Performance management 
PhysicalAbility to live a lifestyle that is
not hindered by illness or injury;
making behavior choices to
ensure health and avoid
preventable diseases and conditions
Prescription drug
Dental Vision
Fitness reimbursement
Wellness programs
SocialAbility to form satisfying
interpersonal relationships
Diversity and inclusion programs/policies
Employee affinity groups
Employee assistance program
Spiritual Ability to experience meaning
and purpose in life through
a connection to one’s self or a power greater than oneself
Bereavement leave
Flexible work arrangements

What is a possible approach to communicating your organization’s approach to holistic well-being?

Consider which sounds more compelling to an employee:

“We support your total well-being.”

— or —

“We support your total well-being, including your physical, financial, and personal health.”

The second statement makes the nebulous concept of well-being a little more clear and tangible. Used consistently, alongside actual benefits and programs, each label can trigger employees to think of the comprehensive nature of your offerings and their long-term value. 

Many organizations I’ve served use the labels above (e.g., financial) or one’s similar to them (e.g., money). Here are a few simple steps to finding the right terminology for your organization.

  1. List all your benefits programs, policies, and other offerings. Don’t overlook those ergonomic desks! 
  2. Sort the list by grouping similar items. For example, put health care programs together. Try to create enough distinct, meaningful groups; eliminate empty categories, consolidate nearly empty ones.
  3. Come up with a brief description of each group. 
  4. Give each group a generic name (for now).
  5. To find your final category names, refer to your organization’s brand identity and culture for inspiration. You don’t have to stick with the generic terms (like physical) and you probably want to avoid overly clever and vague terms (like vigor) but, ultimately, you want a clear and distinctive list that makes particular sense within your organization.

Let’s Connect

Are you struggling with articulating a clear and compelling approach to total well-being? Do you have a unique approach of your own? Please share your story with us. If you’d like some help, let’s discuss it over a kale smoothie.

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